Archive for October, 2010

Deconstruction

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Ramshackle is a word that’s sometimes thrown around to describe lo-fi songs. It’s usually an implication that the song is poorly recorded, with parts coming and going without any apparent agenda. It’s disingenuous, though. There’s an effect that’s produced by that, and I don’t think that the artist who made the music is unaware of that. In the case of “Every Second Darker” by No Demons Here, I highly doubt there’s anyway he’s unaware of that. Sure, the song is put together with that effect. It’s hard to tell if the artists who make music this way even want you to hear it sometimes, at least from the perspective of how they put it together. The first time I ever encountered a sound like that was when I heard some Mountain Goats in college. It’s the sounds of songs that just come and go, with no apparent care as to whether you’re even listening. If you are listening, it certainly seems that there’s no apparent care in terms of how it’s going to sound to you. Are we just privy to someone working out their inner thoughts with the nearest four-track? Possibly. Does that matter? Isn’t that even what most art is about?

So what’s wrong with ramshackle? Nothing. There’s something to be said about just putting a song together in a very simple fashion, from parts to actual recording. There’s an earnestness that’s missing when you start thinking about heavily produced music. Of course it sounds great, and of course that’s how music should sound sometimes (think The Cars). And that earnestness is still calculated to have an effect just like heavy production is. Still, when this song puts together a simple beat with a simple bass line for the rhythm, and tops it all off with a simple vocal line and simple guitar parts, sure, it all sounds like you could have done it at your own place. But you didn’t. And when you start sitting down with a four-track (if you’ve ever had the opportunity), you realize how hard it really is to do that. It’s not that this should sound any more genuine than another song. For me, though, that’s always how this sounds. This song isn’t going to make anyone famous, and it’s certainly not going to get any spins on your local radio station. It’s a sound that’s reminiscent of why anyone makes music in the first place, before world tours and major label contracts or after they have all been and gone, at once cynical and hopeful. It’s a sound that’s easier and easier to find now as many musicians are redefining what it means (or even what it takes) to be successful. So what makes this work more than a lot of other stuff out there that sounds just like it?

I don’t know. The nostalgia it imbues? Sure. The unintelligible but wonderful vocal line? Definitely. But I really can’t say. It’s just that feeling that you can’t put into words that permeates this song. How can something so simple be so hard to describe? It just feels. I can tell you how it’s constructed, but I can’t tell you how that construction has that effect. In a society that deconstructs everything, it’s kinda cool to hear that sound every once in a while.

“Every Second Darker” will be available on the In Aluminum Headache cassette via Croatia Tapes as the fine people at Altered Zones point out if you like physical media or have a working tape deck. You can listen to the entire album at No Demons Here Bandcamp page, and download his first album for for free as well.

On Privacy, Control, And Convenience

Anyone who pays attention to the ongoing saga of Facebook knows that privacy is a big deal. Yet we live in a time where (at least superficially) people are putting more of themselves out there than ever before. Even with moderate security settings, we are privy to a lot of information about a lot of our friends. The same information existed in the past, but it is definitely more centralized and easier to access. More so when you consider what a younger version of you might have left out there and forgot about. In many cases, we don’t have a whole lot of control in what gets out there until after it’s out there either. If no one asks, we can’t edit what other people say or post about us until it’s out there and we see it. Did you not want that picture from that party posted? You should have said something. And yet our friends don’t go around with release forms just for those occasions. It is my hope that I have made some sensible decisions with my friends, and they exercise prudence with what they post on the Internet. If I’m uncomfortable with it, I try to deal with it as soon as I notice it. Even I have posted things and not entirely thought through the consequences of posting them. So obviously the rules are changing; positively, contact information and the ability to keep in touch with people are easier than they used to be. Negatively, there’s a new level of digital voyeurism that is previously didn’t exist. I could have said something 6 years ago in a blog that I forgot about only to have it brought to my attention now in an embarrassing fashion because anyone can go and read that (supposing it’s still there or cached somewhere). At least some of the drive behind behind the want for more privacy isn’t actually the desire not to share. It’s the desire to control who we share with. Given that there are many more forms of media available (and readily accessible) to record the thoughts and deeds that constitute our lives, even those of us with a spartan bent in terms of capturing our lives have a much larger corpus out there than the average person even in the middle of the 20th century. I’m not saying we’re doing more than they did 50 years ago. We are doing just as much as they did probably, but the minutiae of our lives can much more easily end up someplace that can be accessed by many, or all. By all appearances, it’s more work now to control that flow of media than ever before.

Another aspect that has changed is what we have been normalized to expect. People don’t use a blog, or Twitter, or Facebook, to share everything. We are sharing facets of ourselves. In some cases, we are sharing a larger amount of that self than we would otherwise. This is how it’s always been. Think about how you move through your different circles of friends and associates, what one group might know about you and accept as common knowledge another group might find a fascinating part of who you are that has never come up before. This kind of demarcation is especially true in work environments, where people are trying to tailor professional images. No one in my office thinks of me as a killer Dr. Mario player, for example. There’s not a great need for my co-workers to know how good I am at doing car bombs either. But, that information is becoming more readily available, even to those individuals that we don’t want it to be readily available for. Even as something like Facebook is seeking to put those walls back up, it’s already conflated our groups of friends into one giant conglomerate of friend. Anything you post there, you post to all without setting up options that many do not even bother with. Either we tailor the stream of information and self-edit, or we accept that all these people are going to know these things and we deal with that. I’m sure at some point you’ve typed something in the box, looked at it before hitting post, and said, you know what, that’s something I’d share with my (high school, college, work, etc) friends that I don’t need to share with all those other individuals. Either you’ll shrug and post it or you’ll delete it and figure out another way to disseminate your thoughts to the more targeted audience. Personally, I’ve always given quite a bit of thought into what I’m willing to put online, so you can see I’m in the self-editing category. Still, our ability to share information, pictures, words, whatever with people en masse has increased greatly. So our expectation of what we get to see has increased, even if it’s not a conscious thing.

Think about your friends with kids. They post their pictures somewhere, and it’s for ease of access most likely. When there’s family in three different time zones, why not just throw images on a protected website and let those people go view them at their leisure? Certainly it’s easier. So we all get lots and lots of pictures of other peoples’ kids in our Facebook feed. Now think if you know anyone that deliberately doesn’t share pictures of their children in that manner. Doesn’t it seem a little strange not to now? There’s not anything wrong with it. It’s a conscious choice. I have pictures with my friends with their kids or other peoples’ kids, and I’ve never posted one. I might e-mail it to the specific individual(s) in the photo, but I don’t feel like I should be posting other peoples’ children to my albums unless I’m specifically asked to. There’s nothing wrong with not wanting to commit that stuff to the web. Even on Facebook, it’s a fair amount of work to control who gets to see those images, and maybe you are someone who doesn’t want that out there. That’s respectable. But it seems weird, right? Already in a short time, it’s become more of a norm to expect to see most Halloween costumes, pictures with Santa, and other occasions and sundry photos. They’re in your feed right now probably. 10 years ago, the ability to do that didn’t even exist. Those pictures would have been mailed or given to individuals, probably not to nearly as many people, though. Now we can pull out our phones and show off one particularly cute photo right away. Certainly, another silent casualty of the cell phone age is the wallet photo.

That subtle nudge changes what we expect. With more forthcoming friends, we expect them to continue to say that they are forthcoming. When I say I don’t like Halloween, there are some who might expect a pithy follow-up or a lengthy explanation (the two types of discourse I traffic in most). There’s nothing wrong with me exercising my right to not want to get into it. But that suddenly shifts the balance. Given that I am a forthcoming individual who tends to share a fair amount of my views and thoughts through a variety of media, it becomes unusual for me not to do what I always do and expound upon my viewpoint. Those kinds of expectations vary from individual to individual, but it’s like each field or item is its own Pandora’s Box. Once you open up discourse on something, you become known for it. Whether or not I eat out more than my co-workers is irrelevant. Since I know a variety of good restaurants in and around Minneapolis, and I have been to many of them, I am suddenly thought of as someone who goes to these cooler fancy places all the time. Or musically, since I go out to see bands more often, there is suddenly a perception that I am out doing things all the time. The reality is I spend plenty of nights in front of the computer, lounging on the couch, listening to records, reading books, doing domestic things. That reality, though, is both not interesting and not discussed. I’ll write about going out to see Deerhunter, but it seems much more banal to spin an entry about doing the laundry.

People have always been creating narratives for themselves forever. There’s an election going on right now so one need not look to far to see many, many examples of narrative creation. Though probably for less nefarious purposes, we are all engaged in narrative creation for ourselves in addition to contributing to the narratives of others. We have plenty of tools that make it easier than ever to help control that narrative. Paradoxically, it’s even tougher to control now. Burying a piece of information that only exists in one place isn’t necessarily that hard. Scrubbing something off the Web once it’s been cached? Good luck. Claims can be debunked with a simple Google search in seconds if they’re based on factual events. This complicates the act of narrative creation for all of us. Short of a name change (I know, I cheated), that information sticks with you because it’s stuck out there somewhere.

Beyond that, though, is a more central and paradoxical questions. Many of us claim to want privacy, but do we? One doesn’t need Facebook to get along in modern society. It helps, for sure. But no one has had their entire social network collapse just because they aren’t using a social network (at least not that I can verify). That is a very simple step to limiting a lot of information put out there by you. Unfortunately, that doesn’t stop the information from being shared by other people. What people lose by not being involved in something like that is the chance to create the narrative with whatever audience that might be. I know that I don’t want as much privacy as I did before. I still need it in some aspects of my life. I still have my partitions that contain information that will never end up on Facebook, or in a blog post, at least not coming directly from me. And I have to consider what may indirectly come from me, because I may not get the opportunity to control it before it’s out there for all the world to see. I don’t want privacy from my friends, at least, not like I used to. I don’t want to be closed off with them. But I do want to be closed off to a degree with people outside of those core groups. When I set about writing something that is going to be viewable by anyone (as this is currently set to be), I accept and write with that thought in mind. That’s a lot different than a status update. People don’t want privacy as much as they want control. I don’t mean control in a terrible way, either. I mean control in a “maybe my boss shouldn’t see pictures of me doing body shots” kind of way. That was a lot easier not too long ago, but now what we must do is be more vigilant. Even then, we may not be able to prevent some embarrassing and potentially damaging moments. It’s a reality of modern life. As soon as I choose to publish this, I am taking another instance of opening myself up to that, for better or for worse. Personally, I think it’s for better. I could be plagiarized. I could be ridiculed 20 years later for something that I wrote in this very discourse. It’s no different than ending up in a photo at a wedding or a birthday gathering. If I didn’t want to open myself up to those possibilities, I could make like J.D. Salinger and become a hermit. I lose control over the narrative, but I wouldn’t be adding anything new if I were a careful enough recluse.

Obviously, I’ve thought about this issue to some extent. But I try not to think about it in my day-to-day existence. It’s the same with writing a poem or even this entry. I am trying to say something specific a lot of the time, but once I’ve stated it, it’s going to be processed by someone else. I have no real control on where it goes after that. I can refute things that I think are incorrect. I can try to steer the discourse or train of thought back in the direction I originally intended. But if no one else can truly change my mind other than myself, it’s ridiculous to expect that I could do that to others. I take care of what I can take care of and the rest will take care of itself. Sure there’s an insouciance to that attitude, but that doesn’t mean I’m sitting on my hands when stuff does come up that makes me uncomfortable or is just plain wrong. I may have been like that a few years ago, but I try not to be that way now. I’m going to say stupid things, even though I probably never mean to, just like I’m going to end up in pictures doing something I’d rather not be reminded of in picture form. The best I can do is try not to do those things in the first place, online or in person. That isn’t meant to imply that I am not going to say things that I don’t intend to be for everyone with my more intimate friends. But as I’ve had cause to learn, the only way to have no one know something is to truly let no one in no it. It’s no way to live. It’s an effective way to control the narrative, but it unfortunately created this image of who everyone thought was me that was not me. Or at least not wholly me. That specter hangs over anything I did before I transitioned. I created a situation where for the first 26 years of my life, I was an unreliable narrator. That will never go away. I had almost total privacy and control. I’ve since loosened my grip on the reins. It’s a balancing act. Too much privacy is arguably just as problematic as not enough. But I’ll never let go completely. That’s not the kind of person I am. Personally, I’m not arguing for one or the other. It’s about finding a level that you’re comfortable with. It’s about realizing that a lot of other people are going to have a lot of input on your narrative because that creates a more rounded picture of you, even if it’s got some of the negatives that you’d just as soon wish weren’t there. It’s about stopping to think about what you actually want, not what other people want or what’s convenient. Ultimately, that’s what privacy comes down to. How much control do you want? It gets back to that active/passive communication dichotomy that I periodically mention. As we become more passive communicators (and most of us are becoming that, myself included), we lose more control over that flow of information. We put things out there to be seen, which in it of itself is less private than actively communicating to an individual or small group. Another paradox then, to end on. We want to be able to control who we share words, thoughts, pictures, and other things with, but increasingly, we put them out there and let them find them at their leisure. The slide show is dead, too, and we have given up a touch of privacy for that convenience. Increasing privacy gives you greater control, but less convenience. I don’t know if anyone can have as much of all three as they ultimately might want. Me? I’m just gonna keep twisting the knobs and hope to get the balance right.

Be

A friend of mine posted a link to the following article on procrastination. It’s long, but it’s worth your time. Go read it. Really, it’s okay. I’ll wait…okay, now we’re on the same page. I hope you enjoyed it and didn’t just skim over it because I believe there are a lot of well-made points in it. Overall, I agree with the main thrust of the article. I know I am a poor planner in many regards, and yet, I also know that somewhere in me lies the skills to overcome that as I have planned and executed a number of things. I know that I can set an exercise regimen, for example, and stick to it. But I also know that I’m the kind of person who works best when I get in a groove and continue to do something. So I’ve obviously thought about what it takes to get me going, and occasionally I actually execute. I’m not going to say I’ve gotten better at actually making myself do what I want to (or think I want to depending on which person you are talking about). I do believe I understand how to make myself do things when I need to (or feel I need to). In reflecting on all of that, what it really makes me wonder about is the following: Is it worth it? The author doesn’t get into that side of it. He’s mostly concerned with the mechanics of procrastination, and why some of us are better at avoiding it than others. And in some areas, I see the benefit. Tricking yourself into eating healthier or exercising more sure seems to have an overall benefit on your life expectancy. But what about tricking yourself in other regards?

I work in a large office, for a gargantuan company. As I fondly note, I’m a tiny, tiny cog in the giant wheel of capitalism. I approach this job with the same general mentality I have approached every job I’ve had. If I’m going to be a Loan Documentation Specialist IV, then I’m going to be the best damn Loan Documentation Specialist IV I can be. It doesn’t always work out that way, but that’s the effort in my head. It was the same way when I was making ice cream or serving sandwiches. Just because I was stuck doing something that I though was beneath my overall talent didn’t mean that I had to go about doing it poorly. But I’ve looked around work. I’ve seen the people I’ve worked with not try all that much in my opinion, and yet I’ve never seen the consequences be appreciably that different. Unless you really mess something up, or you’re company’s suddenly going under, it seems that it actually takes a lot of work to get fired once you have that job. Again, this is personal experience, nothing more, I’m sure people can come up with examples to the contrary of that. At the end of the year, these people who didn’t seem to do much more are still going to get the same overall raises, benefits, etc., even if it didn’t seem to me that they did much more. Again, this is all my perception. Maybe this is what drives me, this sense of being slighted, and I’m sure some degree of it is my imaginary motivation driving me to do more. Or maybe that’s really what’s happening. Either way, the underlying belief behind that attitude is that it’s better to do more, whatever more is. It’s better to get more done with my time. It’s better to write more entries. It’s better to read more books. It’s better to exercise 5 days a week.

Why, though? Why is it better to come home and write a blog entry instead of playing Dr. Mario? Even in areas where there’s more tangible reasons (like exercising for your health), it’s not a guarantee that going for a run is going to do anything more for you than sitting down on the couch to catch up on whatever’s on your DVR. There are a lot of assumptions about what is important or even necessary. What that essay on procrastination confirms is that most of us tend to choose that which will gratify us sooner. What it can’t (and never could) tell us is if it really matters. Obviously we are like that and we all have our little tricks to make us do things that we would otherwise put off or stop sooner than we want. Society proscribes certain activities as worthless, even if they probably have as much value as anything else. There’s a big perception difference between being seen reading a book and being seen reading a graphic novel. Even if the graphic novel is more literate (like The Sandman) than the novel in question. There’s a bias there, and we have a similar bias in regards to our activities and choices.

This could all be rationalization for why I come home some nights and feel like I do nothing. Maybe this entry wouldn’t have been written if I’d waited until tomorrow instead of doing it tonight after reading that post on You Are Not So Smart. I’ve learned there’s little point in beating myself up. I don’t work like that. I either do things or I don’t, and I’m not going to make myself feel bad about the things I wanted to do at the time. Because it’s what I wanted to do at the time. And sure, I’m stacking up problems for future me just like always. But something I’ve noticed is that there’s always more to get done. Maybe it’s just how we’re raised and how our society is, but that feels like the pressure in modern life. Do more, see more, know more, be more. That’s more, though, not all. Furthermore, I’ve learned that I’m never going to get it all done. I make the quick decisions in regards to my music. I do not have time to listen to everything that’s out there, and therefore I have to make decisions. I’ve learned to make them, and not get too hung up on it. I miss stuff sometimes, but that’s inevitably going to occur. That’s not rationalization. That’s reality. Sometimes I make the decisions that are perceived as more useful by those around me. Sometimes I don’t. It’s my hope, though, that I’m always making the decision that’s right for me right then. I may wonder about it later, but there’s no point in regretting past decisions. Maybe I can learn from them but I’m not always going to make informed decisions in the future just like I haven’t in the past. I have impulses and desires that obfuscate my decision to do what’s perceived as right or better for me sometimes. But that’s okay. It’s part of being. And I am perfectly happy to just be.

Voices

I took Latin in high school. Latin is an interesting language for a number of reasons which aren’t all worth getting into. For the purposes of this discussion, I just want to say the presence of the passive voice seems to be different in Latin than it is in English. We, of course, learn not to use the passive voice in English. It’s certainly not always a rule, but it’s encouraged, and if there are only a few things that stuck with you from grade school, that’s probably one. Even if you don’t know why. English grammarians don’t even know why in some cases (because you can’t in Latin isn’t exactly a compelling reason, is it?), but some rules do exist for a reason. It’s not to make your life harder. It’s to have a codified set of English that we call Standard American English so that we all communicate relatively the same no matter where we are from in the United States; this kind of English is geared towards a professional tenor that we are expected to use in professional communication. If you’re the grammarian in your group of friends (like me), hopefully you realize this. What’s disturbing is how often this is missed in our educations. I wonder if the point is getting across when people are learning about English in school. For the purposes of this, think about the language arts side of things, not the literature side. They aren’t just making you do all those exercises to torture you, and the reason we all spend so many years learning a language we already inherently know is so we can communicate in those different registers.

If you’re like me (at least in this regard), you see a lot of professional communication at work that is unequivocally not professional. There are a lot of things that creep up. From misplaced emoticons to misplaced apostrophes to simple misspellings, some days it seems like they will never stop. While I am certainly on the descriptive side when it comes to my language thinking, there is definitely a time and a place for a set of English that everyone should be familiar with. I’m not talking about words. I have been known to use a word or two that you are unfamiliar with, sure. But I also follow a standard set of rules that anyone should who speaks SAE should be able to appreciate. I’ve been known to use the passive voice. I certainly use less standard sentence constructions, even in an e-mail dealing with loan level issues. Those sentences and constructions are usually clear, though. I’ve never particularly wondered how it is I can write something that is lucid. So in that sense, maybe I got lucky and I just have a knack for English.

Does that mean that I expect the same level of professionalism in my day-to-day communications? Certainly not. There’s a huge difference between writing for a specific audience (like, say, your co-workers) versus telling a story to friends around a kitchen table. And while it’s frustrating to talk about transitive verbs and not have anyone known what I’m talking about, I can still appreciate the humor in my friends thinking I’m talking about transient verbs like they’re hobos. People aren’t looking for grammar lessons in their spare time, and I understand that. Language might not fascinate you the way it fascinates me.

Still, I expect that I shouldn’t see a letter where someone explains their employer lets them “office from home”. And yet I do. While the point of communication is to be understood (and I certainly understood that), something unconscious happens when I see those mistakes. I doubt I review the files any differently (fraud is fraud irrelevant of how well English is deployed in the file), but I know that I probably feel a little differently. It becomes more of a small amusement than anything, this misuse of English that crops up from file to file. Every time I see that greengrocer’s apostrophe, a little bit of me dies. If it’s on your coversheet for every file you send in (here’s looking at you, unnamed because I would like to keep my job), I’m already predisposed to think differently about your file. Now, I step back and act professional. I don’t let those little foibles get in the way of me doing my job, because that would be unprofessional and I don’t have a desire to be unprofessional in that regard. At the same time, those thoughts are always unconsciously there. I may be trying to avoid it, but I probably believe you are that much less professional because of that.

We all have different voices. We adopt many of them in a given day, between our professional voice and our various personal ones with different co-workers. We probably have an even different tone with our friends outside of work, or even our co-workers outside of work, where what’s generally accepted in terms of language changes yet again. What I’d like to see is for people to appreciate that professional voice more again. English teachers aren’t there to teach you how to speak with your peers; they’re there to teach you a mode of English, SAE, is there for a reason. Beyond that, it’s not even that difficult to use. What you learned in English classes isn’t the proper way to speak; it’s modes of communication. You (hopefully) learned something about that in school, though I don’t personally remember it being highlighted that way. There are times when ain’t is just fine, and other times where it isn’t anywhere near appropriate. Learning English is about learning those distinctions. Those distinctions are what help people become better communicators.

Effective communication is something that people should take pride in. Whether it’s a personal note or a professional communique, the end goal is the same. There’s a baseline desire to be understood no matter what the words are. When the construction suffers, the message suffers. I like to be told by co-workers that something I wrote is well-written. I take pride in making sure that my point is understood. If that means that I have to read my e-mail twice, then so be it. I tend to do the same thing when I’m writing like this. It’s useful to step away and read it again, even out loud. I don’t do that in a personal e-mail, though, and I certainly don’t edit myself during a phone conversation in that way. They are all different modes of communication. We all speak a lot of different dialects, and each of those different dialects has its own confounding little rules that we know. I think there’s a net benefit in realizing that. The mix-up in communication usually stems from those dialects bleeding together. So maybe, the next time you are writing a professional communication, stop, give it a quick read before you hit send. Think about the voice you are sending it in, the audience you are reaching, and what your desired goal is. It’ll make my work day a little less linguistically entertaining, but I promise it’ll be worth it.

Why I Love Churches But Not Church

If you live in certain parts of Saint Paul, there are a few buildings that visually catches your eye line. Obviously, if you’re in downtown (or Lowertown in my case), there are all the various buildings that make up the Saint Paul skyline; the other two buildings in the downtown area that tend to draw your eye are the two domed ones, the Capitol and the Cathedral. The Capitol has some wonderful art and features, but from a pure aesthetic sense, I’ve always been a cathedral girl. They are beautiful buildings, and the one in Saint Paul is no exception. It dominates the landscape at the end of Summit and it tends to draw my eye when I’m out and about. This morning on my way to work I got to see the near full moon setting behind it. And for whatever reason, the cathedral seems more a part of Saint Paul than the Basilica seems a part of Minneapolis. It is an important aspect of the identity of the immediate area that just seems more present, for whatever reason. But I do occasionally feel conflicted about my aesthetic appreciation, especially since transitioning. After all, that building represents an organization that dogmatically believes I shouldn’t be, that I am an aberration at best, misguided, lost, and in the need of a very strong father figure. I am none of those things. I know that. But how can I separate out how I feel about an organization’s beliefs from their architectural mastery when a) I don’t believe in what primarily moved them to build the building in the first place and b) on a high level, the people who use that place as a house of worship would rather I didn’t even exist?

I was raised Catholic. There was a time when that meant a lot to me, at least when I was a lot younger and I enjoyed the pageantry of it all. As I got older, though, even before I really explored who I was, it just didn’t seem like a good fit for me, and by the time I was done with high school, my Catholic upbringing was all but forgotten except by my closest relatives. I have no regrets about that. I know many good Catholics. But I also know that I’m not one of them. I always feel a little uncomfortable when I’m in a church these days, like I just don’t belong. I didn’t feel that way before I transitioned though. I still internally wasn’t particularly comfortable being a part of something that I didn’t buy into, but I didn’t feel any level of external discomfort. And I do now. I don’t feel particularly welcome in a church. I don’t go around trying to convince Catholics to be atheists; it wouldn’t be right and frankly, it’s not my place. On the other hand, I don’t feel like I’m necessarily accorded the same respect for my own beliefs. It’s not a lack of beliefs; it’s a set of different beliefs.

So how can I appreciate something that was built on beliefs that I don’t share? That’s the trick, but aren’t we all doing that all the time? After all, there are many individual Catholics I know who are great people with great faith that don’t make any effort at all to convince me I’m a godless sinner that needs to detransition even if that’s what the high level dogma is. So we’re all these complex, unique sets of beliefs even when we fall under large umbrellas like American or female or Catholic; in that sense, we are all appreciating things that we don’t fully understand whenever we are taking in art, because there’s a unique set of values that went into creating that. It’s tricky enough when you are talking about contemporary items, peers, art, whatever; start talking about the past, and we have to start adding qualifiers based on the nature of society in terms of what was acceptable. We all appreciate and respect Thomas Jefferson for his great contributions to societies in a variety of walks, but he’s rarely pilloried for his ownership of slaves. It comes up as a negative of course, and certainly it’s a problem when we look back with a modern lens. It’s an abhorrent thing to consider. Of course, that’s also being judged with that same modern lens, and it’s not hard to think that 300 years from now, our ancestors are going to provide the same qualifiers we provide to excuse past figures from whatever seems unsightly to them. We all pick and choose the aspects of the things around us that best suit our personal philosophy and we tailor our beliefs to them. Aspiring writers might admire the strong, simple word construction of Hemingway without being advocates of his belief in the quality and beauty of bullfighting. We are all known to hold massively contradictory views within ourselves; I’d even go so far as to argue that’s inevitable. Add to the fact that our views on issues and individuals are constantly evolving as we learn more about them and ourselves, and it’s a wonder that any of us can even hold a viewpoint sometimes. Even when we are a part of something bigger (such as a religious organization) we are still picking and choosing our philosophies within those constructs.

So I love well constructed houses of worship? There’s nothing wrong with appreciating the aesthetic beauty of the churches. I don’t have to like or agree with what’s going on inside, and most likely I never will, but that pendulum’s always swinging, even when we don’t think our viewpoints are going to change. As an individual, I appreciate the music and the architecture contributed by the Catholic Church for sure; I don’t appreciate being compared to clear cutting in the rain forest just for being who I am. I’d like to hope that I’m smart enough to realize that appreciating one thing doesn’t mean I endorse another. We are all constantly learning the limits of our beliefs a little bit more every day. Part of the contradiction that is me is loving churches without loving church. Which may seem odd to you. Or totally understandable. Or like it never should have even been a problem in the first place. That depends on which contradictions you are made of.

The Perils Of Being Cake

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A few weeks back, I was listening to the Current when I heard the unmistakable sounds of Cake. Sure enough, Cake has a new album on the way, and it contains all the John McCrea, trumpet, half guitar, and vibraslap that you have come to know and love over the years. I listened as I normally do, for Cake will always have a special place in my heart. They are the first band I ever saw at the 9:30 Club (well, technically the opener was), still one of my favorite places to catch a show when I get the chance. But as soon as the song was over, I summarily forgot it. I can’t even remember the name of the new album or the song, which is as good of a gauge as any for what I thought of it. I’m glad Cake is still making music and I hope it’s doing it for someone, but right now it isn’t doing it for me. This coming from someone who owns half their albums and has seen them 5 or 6 times (I can’t quite recall right now). I like Cake, I really do. In fact, it’s just the right level to look at this feeling that it inspired properly. What is it about Cake that will get me to keep listening when it comes on, yet causes me to no longer seek it out? Have I changed as a listener so much that I can no longer appreciate something that holds a special place in my heart? Has the music changed too much? Or has it not changed enough? I think it’s the last statement in Cake’s case.

Read music reviews done by actual professionals (i.e. not me) and you will find that a word such as unique doesn’t come up that much. That’s because most music isn’t all that unique, and the most common review technique, conversationally, or through written mediums, is to apply a formula. Band X = Band Y + Band Z with a dash of Band Q. It’s not hard to see examples of this, and it’s not even hard to think of them. There are many strains of music that proudly wear their influences on their sleeves, even if you don’t know what they are. The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart would be the first tell you that they evoke the sounds of many C86 and Sarah Records bands (see: Field Mice); no one makes any bones about the fact that M83 made the perfect song for a John Hughes film…in 2008. Also, it can be dangerous to try and describe a band as unique. Because it’s so hard to say. While technically speaking, any band is unique (the exact circumstances that produce something will never be the same again), people aren’t looking into music criticism for that kind of depth and philosophy. Anyway, the review would probably be all but useless as we need something to latch onto, and that’s why the comparisons are inevitable and even necessary. The most a band that wants to be thought of as unique can hope for is a vast amalgam of comparisons, showing that people see numerous elements in it. Certainly, bands scientifically set out to produce results that will sound certain ways. Think of Candy Claws deciding to make their entire second record with keys even though none of them knew how to play them at the time. Or, for an example that you recognize, think of the sonic differences between Smashing Pumpkins first three records with Jimmy Chamberlin as opposed to what you heard in the Adore era made with drum machines. Think “Eye” or “Ava Adore”. Many elements are the same, but an important sonic component (in this case Chamberlin’s jazz-informed, drug-addled drumming) was missing and the sound couldn’t help but shift. It’s natural for most bands to change over time exploring new phases due to outside influence, writing from a different station in their lives, or just wanting to make a record that comes from a different sonic place. To make the same record over, for many bands, is to invite self-parody. If the only thing you can be compared to is yourself, most people will naturally gravitate to and attach themselves to what they heard first. There’s nothing wrong with that. Consider it in your own life with the bands that you are passionate about for a second. It’s almost like those first 10 cds or cassettes or records that you purchased. You can’t help but be more familiar with those than anything else you own. Everything else has to make up time, and as the collection grows, it’s harder to devote more time to those new purchases, even if you obsess over them. So we lean on those first instances, probably more than most of us realize. Anyway, I got away from the point a bit there, and the point is this: unique (in the music reviewer sense, hard to ascribe with qualities from other bands in a neat formula) bands aren’t inhibited by that nearly as much. For an example you aren’t familiar with, think Bear In Heaven. But for an example that I’m sure most of you are familiar with, think Cake. Who would you say Cake sounds like?

It’s not that easy. They are their own band, and bands like that don’t come along all that much any more than movies or books or paintings or any other form of art/media. We can’t help but be influenced by all the things around us, and it’s somewhat jarring to hear things that really sound free of that. So it’s safe to say that Cake operates on a slightly different plane than most bands out there. When you are at a place like that, it gives you a bit of a different creative license. If you have an inimitable sound, there’s less danger in making records that sound mostly the same because there’s really nothing out there infringing on that. You the listener are not being inundated with 100 different bands sounding like and wanting to be the next Nirvana like you were in 1996. That creates fatigue for a sound which in it of itself might explain some of the genre tourism bands end up doing. It could be necessary to keep a band vital if they are sonically in line with a lot of other bands. When you’re Cake and no one else out there is doing what you’re doing, that’s much less of a danger. So at this point, we’ve established that they deserve their own little genre in iTunes for whatever it’s worth, even if iTunes (or CDDB more aptly) calls them Alternative & Punk at the end of the day. That’s a good thing and it’s always nice to hear bands like that. Unfortunately it still leads to the same problems at the end of the day.

I once heard from someone that a band can only truly make 4 great albums, no matter how many they end up making. So there’s already something of a shelf-life for most bands in our minds. It’s an argument worth having sometime, but not right now. Cake makes good albums, but not great albums. You might be able to argue that you could put all of their best songs together and make a great album, but I don’t even think that’s true. It’s good, it’s listenable, it’s certainly something you can sing along with. But it’s not great. Therein lies part of the problem. There’s not really much in the Cake canon that rises above the rest. While there are some outliers (“Nugget” for its very enchanting, if out of place “shut the fuck up” chorus”) most Cake songs move along with that same old Cake lyrical intensity and drive as any other song. Over 5 albums that I’ve heard and 1 advanced track from the new one, I can’t say anything would be different. I own Fashion Nugget, Prolonging The Magic, and Comfort Eagle. I feel like I could take 4 songs off of each of them, put them together in a random sequence, and play them for someone who was not familiar with Cake and it would have relatively the same impact as hearing any of those 3 albums. I feel I could even shuffle them individually to create an entirely new order and it wouldn’t have an overall impact on the music. This isn’t a bad thing per se, but there’s a high level of interchangeability about Cake’s songs. And Cake certainly approaches it with more sincerity than Weezer, who has pretty much mastered the paint by numbers songwriting approach on their last 5 albums.

The other problem with Cake is the inscrutability of their music. I have no clue what most of their songs are about. I know lots of words to many of them, but I cannot tell you what the hell they mean most of the time. They aren’t the only band I listen to that I can’t put my finger on in that regard. A lot of bands choose to have lyrics that they don’t want to let you in on. That kind of Dickinsonian lyricism comes at a price, though, as I have a harder time attaching to a song emotionally if I can’t even figure out what they hell they are talking about. It doesn’t mean it won’t happen, and I’m not burdened by that in songs without words; it speaks more to my expectations of some songs than anything else. I can latch onto the feeling, but good music gives off that feeling already. Good lyrics further add to it. There’s a saying attributed to David Byrne that lyrics are just there to get you to listen to the music, and if you only regard the function of lyrics in that way, you could say that Cake certainly succeeds. I think that’s selling short the impact lyrics can have, though. Great music has been made for a long time without words, so they aren’t necessary. No amount of lyrics would aid the emotional impact of “Moonlight Sonata”. Not that that is a fair comparison, but I do believe it illustrates the point. Words aren’t necessary. But if you are going to put them there, shouldn’t they be? One can forgo lyrics almost entirely and still have singable melodies. There are exceptions in Cake’s catalog; I find the words a necessary component to “Comfort Eagle” and honestly believe it lyrically to be one of their more accessible songs. But I have no clue what “Frank Sinatra” is about. Do I need to? Probably not. That doesn’t prevent it from being a niggling thought as I listen, though.

Maybe this is the album that Cake bucks the trend. It could be exceptionally bad in some way that causes me to re-evaluate my thoughts on their other records, so different that I am forced to think outside of my little comfort zone when it comes to them, or so similar that it won’t even dent my listening habits and thoughts. This entire train of thought is not a condemnation of people who are big Cake fans; it’s not a recommendation against their new record that I haven’t even heard; it’s just some critical thoughts about not only the act of making music but how my approach to consuming it has changed over the years. 10 years ago, I would have purchased the new Cake the week it came out. 10 years ago, I might not have a given a damn what it meant. I have a completionist streak that has since died down quite a bit; even bands I’m a die-hard for have to do quite a bit of work to convince me to buy their new albums. After all, I already have dozens of Depeche Mode albums and singles. Am I really missing that much by not owning Sounds Of The Universe? I highly doubt it, and at the exorbitant price they wanted for a vinyl copy, it was even easier to stay away. I didn’t purchase the last Pearl Jam album. Even 5 years ago, that thought would have been heretical to the core of my musical being. But it comes pretty easy these days. There are so many other records I want to purchase, after all. Have I gone too much to the other side, always chasing down the thrill of getting there first, of being one of 300 to physically own something? I’d prefer to think I’ve just blossomed into the music listener I was always meant to be, but I’m an unreliable narrator in that regard. It is my hope that plenty of people buy the new Cake record. They are a band worth supporting, and one I’ve always enjoyed live. I hope their new album functions as an entry point for some young teenager out there like it did for me, and they can proudly remember the first time they saw Cake at whatever club is in or near their hometown. Of course, the very way teenagers are getting their music has changed, so maybe that’s not even possible like it was 15 years ago. Still, it’s my hope that it serves as an entry point for someone regardless. Maybe the problem here isn’t Cake’s problem. Their ability to continue to produce consistently good records and have a sound that is wholly their own is a good thing that should be lauded. Anyway, the peril doesn’t just exist for Cake, but for all bands. How do you get over that listener fatigue? How do you deal with the fact that as time goes on you will create more and more songs and albums that will inevitably serve as points of comparison? Personally, I don’t think any of us can ever get over those kinds of facts. As music fans (as anything, really), we are all moving targets, and what we like can change instantaneously. There’s no guarantee that you will go back to liking a band after they do something to turn you off. I still don’t listen to much Ted Leo to this day after his rant about Neil Young when I saw him at First Ave. That is the specific something I can attribute to not viewing his music the same way anymore. So it doesn’t even have to be anything musical that can interfere with your relationship to the music you once loved. It’s not the fault of the band that’s on the radio when you and your significant other have a fight that eventually leads to you breaking up. But that song picks up significance whether you wanted it to or not. My relationship with Cake doesn’t have a switch like that by any means; gradually, I’ve just drifted away from it. My choices are far greater in regards to what I own. The sound I’m looking for out of music has shifted to a point where Cake no longer necessarily satisfies it. Their music doesn’t embarrass me; I won’t skip it when it comes up on shuffle on the iPod. But neither will I seek it out. And I’m constantly re-evaluating that relationship I have with everything I own as I get more. The things that come later in the collection may be informed by those initial 10 cds that I purchased so long ago; they may all be logical followups to a childhood of Led Zeppelin and Pearl Jam; bands are stepping stones, and it’s a struggle to keep people from just hopping onto the next one. It’s certainly not just a problem for Cake to deal with; I should show a little bit more respect and listen to any of their three albums that I own. That thought didn’t stop me from putting Clinging To A Scheme by The Radio Dept. on the turntable and dropping the needle, though.

A Series Of Accidents

“Life was so short, and books so countlessly many.” – from Eyeless In Gaza by Aldous Huxley

It’s not empirical, but speaking at least from an anecdotal standpoint, it seems people get more done when they have a visible path. I know I’ve been more productive as a writer when I’ve established some sort of clear regimen to follow. I get more done at work when I know I have to get this much done today. I do more in my time away from work if I end up working a few extra hours a week because it makes me prioritize my time away from work that much more; to that end, I doubt I’m that different than most people. Prioritizing, or at least having a clear time line and goal, helps me get things done. And while I may have totally ignored some self-imposed deadlines, I’ve done a pretty good job of following them as I’ve gotten older, juggling them with some aplomb the past few years. Maybe you wouldn’t believe me if I told you that personally, even though it seemed impossible at the time, I told myself on my 27th birthday that I wanted to be “done” with transitioning by my 30th. Done is of course open to interpretation, but certainly by almost any standard, I will come quite close to squeaking in under that deadline (hey, there’s nothing I can do about my surgery date…I set it a year ago). And really, a couple weeks late, I can live with that. Meanwhile, numerous creative goals or other self-improvement goals have wallowed. I still have files and files full of writing I’ve done nothing with beyond write. And notebooks. And loose-leaf paper. Well, you obviously get the point. I do feel that as I’ve gotten older, though, I’ve done a better job of realistically establishing and pursuing goals in my life. Which is why getting in 3000 miles on the bike since April should be possible before I can’t ride again for a few months (that would be February). It’s a tough, but realistic goal that I set for myself. It’s exciting to see that I’m not that far from it, because certainly in April it seemed a bit ambitious, but now, it’s only about 38 more bike rides between now and the end of January. 3 more this week, so let’s say 35 until the last week in January. That means I have 14 weeks to get in 35 rides and given that my personal goal every week is 4 rides a week, that should be doable. Weather may cause some problems in the near future, but there’s nothing I can do about that until it’s here and I can realistically see what’s in front of me. So I set a difficult, but realistic goal for myself, and here I am at a point where that’s not only realistic, I should be able to get it done ahead of schedule. It’s a nice feeling.

I started this entire line of thinking as I just finished The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut, and I was thinking about what was next. Which is nice, because I haven’t been reading books all that much. As anyone who talks with me knows, I tend to read quite a bit, but in the past couple years, that has shifted from books to newspaper articles. Anyway who follows me on Facebook and hasn’t blocked me gets to see a fair sampling of the articles I read in a given day, but not all of them. But I missed reading. I missed curling up in a bed with a good book (hell, even a bad book) and I knew there were a couple things that I’ve been meaning to get around to (translation: half my bookshelf…but it sure does look good). Instead of taking on those books, though, I decided to get back to an even older thought I had a while back of working my way through every Nebula and/or Hugo award winner. It’s been an educational experience to say the least. There’s something revelatory about finding the thing that everyone else ripped off. That’s how I felt as I read Neuromancer at least, or how I felt when I listened to Entertainment! by Gang Of Four the first time. I know I’ve mentioned both of those as examples before, but it bears repeating because there’s something powerful about finding what is a more likely genesis than what you always thought. That’s what’s made my little project to get through Hugo and Nebula winners so rewarding. And sure, some of them are flops in retrospect (um…have you read Have Space Suit – Will Travel. It’s not exactly heavy lifting), others are far more groundbreaking than you think. Do you truly realize not only how much Alfred Bester gets right in The Demolished Man, but how many other people have pilfered it? While the similarities are likely unconscious on the parts of other authors, it’s safe to say that he set the bar high as the first Hugo winner in 1953. So as I’ve been able to find them I’ve been picking my way through them. I started with Hugos first and decided to sweep back through the Nebula award winners that I missed. So far (sadly) I’ve only read 13 of them, either as they’ve come to me over time or as I’ve been picking through them, and I’ve been trying to start at the beginning and work my way forward. I’m even more behind on my actual Nebula award winners, though, having only read 4 (the Hugos started earlier, and I’ve been trying to work roughly chronologically, so that explains it partially).

Funny thing is, somewhere along the way, I got distracted and just started reading again. That’s what lead me to books like Steven Amsterdam’s Things We Didn’t See Coming (the best book I’ve read in a long time). As much as I enjoy 8000 word NYT articles, there’s something different about reading an actually developed book, even a non-fiction book about, say, the English language. Not only have I started reading again, but I’ve kept at it with relative diligence for the first time in a long time, it feels. Much like the list of records to purchase, the list of books to read just keeps growing, and it always will. There will always be books I intend to read, and whoever goes through my collection when I die may get the wrong impression as I highly doubt that even at that point I will have read everything I own. I’m on my way to creating my own decent anti-library in the image of Umberto Eco (as best highlighted in The Black Swan). Just like there are always more records to buy, there are always more books to read. I think you probably feel that way about whatever it is that you are passionate about too, as there are always more movies to watch, more cities to visit, more parks in Minnesota to see. It doesn’t really matter what it is then, does it? There’s always something more. Once you’ve achieved one goal, there’s another goal to move onto, and maybe that one won’t quite get done at the same pace. Or ever. But I’ve come to realize something. There’s nothing wrong with that. We are all hopefully going to set goals in our lives that we are not going to achieve. Not on the whole. Hopefully we do many of the things we want and they bring us great fulfillment. But there will always be more to accomplish, and some of those will never be done quite to our satisfaction or just won’t be done. Hopefully we all will still want to accomplish things to the very end. Which doesn’t mean I’m not going to read those other 50+ books. I am. But after that is another goal. They gradually get to a point where you can’t do them all. That’s not why I pick them all up, though. That’s not why I want to hike the AT and publish a book and…well, I could go on and on and on. It’s my hope that you can as well because I believe that’s a healthy thing. We aren’t all meant to achieve beyond our means, but we are all meant to reach beyond it. Some of us are just more fortunate than others. As Unk would say, it’s accidents.

Further information should you decide this is a good thing to do on your own:

List of Hugo Award Winners (yes, Wikipedia has the best list I’ve found)
List of Nebula Award Winners (see above)

As a bonus, feel free to guess which Hugos I have read. I’ve already given you about half, but the other ones may be surprising.

I Know, I Know

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Funny thing about the Internet…there’s a lot of stuff floating around out there.  As a music fan, this is equal parts awesome and despairing.  There is so much new music to listen to out there, it’s overwhelming.  I tend to let Pitchfork and Altered Zones do most of the heavy lifting, but I do find music other ways occasionally, especially older music.  This is one I actually stumbled across while listening to Last.fm (Washed Out Radio if you’re really curious).  In this case, this isn’t particularly old, as it’s been moving around the music blogs since December of last year, but as the music blogs go, that can be an eternity.  For someone who enjoys the physical experience of ownership as much as the thrill of listening to all this great stuff for free, it’s particularly complicated to stay on top of everything.  The overall effect plays out in a few disparate ways in my opinion, though I’m only going to talk about one right now.  The entire concept of what it takes to be successful in music is different now.  While I think it’s always been this way, now most people can actually see it.  There probably have always been small bands with niche audiences doing something they love and struggling, but it’s certainly been around for at least the last 20 years, and for a long time those bands only outlets were college radio, alternative press and lots of gigging.  That lent itself to a breed of band like, say, Superchunk, who are from all accounts very, very proficient at putting on a good live show.  Guided By Voices left me with that same impression.  All those bands were struggling to get heard back then and build an audience.  Subtly, that concept has shifted from struggling to be heard to struggling to get you to listen.  There’s a ton of media, and it’s a challenge just to find people who will listen to your song more than once.  As a fan of music, I have to make a lot of snap decisions.  No matter how hyped or anticipated a song is, if it doesn’t click with me, it’s liable to get lost in the shuffle of thousands and thousands of songs.  Especially given that I lack physical media to remind me in many cases (an entry for another time).  Strangely, this shift in music has also made good live shows more important again, but again, that’s a longer thought for another time.  I launched into this tangent largely because I was trying to drum up ways that songs click with me.  It shifts over time, of course, and this year, I’ve been feeling a lot of sampling, electro-pop, and fuzzy guitars.  If you listened to my favorites at the midpoint, you’d certainly know that.  All of which brings us around to “Mien” by MillionYoung.

There’s a certain truth in music for me, and that is if you have some sweet 80s synth driving your song, the chances of it clicking with me are about 10 times greater.  I blame Depeche Mode and The Cars, two of the more formative bands for me when I think of pop.  So when “Mien” kicks off with those sweet whole notes with the melodic line over it, I am vaguely reminded of a world where even “Puttin’ On The Ritz” can be turned into a synth pop tune; I’m already in the right place.  By the time it’s closing out with laser sounds effects straight out of an 80s sci-fi film, I’m already sold.  I’m a sucker for repetitive lyrics, but this is one of those cases where the lyrics aren’t important.  It’s the melody.  It could be played just as well with even more keys for all I know.  There’s a lot going on, but there really isn’t when you sit back and listen, maybe 4 or 5 overlapping parts at the most.  It hits my musical pleasure centers quite completely.  My only real regret when I’m done listening is that it took me this long to find it.  I will have to just wonder how this plays out live for now, but the even more impressive thing about a lot of bands like MillionYoung is how well they manage to pull this kind of sound off in a live setting.  And while I’m waiting to find that out some day hopefully, I will just have to settle for listening to this on repeat.  Because for me, there is not much greater honor for a track these days than wanting to listen to it again as soon as it’s over.  After all, there’s a lot out there you should hear.  But first, listen to “Mien” one more time.

Mien is available on the Be So True EP.  It’s sold out on cassette through Arcade Sound Ltd, but you can get it digitally at iTunes.  Be sure to check out Arcade Sound Ltd. for other great free downloads such as the Sunndreamm EP and EPs from Teen Daze, coolrunnings, Memoryhouse, and more.  I especially recommend Memoryhouse and I will probably write about them another time.  Free downloads as well as tour dates are available for MillionYoung directly from the source as well. Go support live music!

There’s Always Someone Cooler Than You

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You can, if you are enough of a fan of music, recall that Guided By Voices is something of a touchstone.  They are important, but you do not necessarily listen to them.  I, for one, will readily admit to only actually owning one hard copy of a GBV album (Bee Thousand); as a music fan, we all make decisions, and had I been a few years older, or taken a different track to the music that I currently listen to, that road may have led through Robert Pollard and co.  But as the case was, it did not, and Bee Thousand is a relatively recent addition to my record collection time-wise, though I have purchased records at a pace that far outpaces many in the past few years.  I pull it out and I listen to it for sure, because there’s nothing else in my collection that quite fills that “I need some dirty, lo-fi rock” quite the way they do without at least sounding a bit derivative of them in retrospect.  You may not recognize them, or any of their songs, but they are an important cornerstone to the collection of many an audiophile.  They are best described the same way one might describe Wire or Television as a band the bands you listen to listened to, if you follow that.  The point being, they are important without you knowing why, they are a band that leads logically to Spoon or Times New Viking if only you knew where it were coming from.  Sometimes, when I hear older bands or specific songs for the first time, it’s like you can almost hear the click in my head, like a puzzle from a video game.  Like the first time a big Strokes fan hears the “Marquee Moon” by Television.  In the spirit of adventure that has propelled me through this year, I decided to go see GBV on the classic reunion tour, because what better time would there be to truly evaluate something that by all accounts should be more integral to my musical personality.

As a bit of disclosure, this probably separates me from 99% of the crowd.  It was a sold-out show and it felt like it was full of super fans who knew all the words to all the songs, and there was me just happy to recognize about half of them.  It is odd, but ultimately instructive.  I have an opinion, for sure, and part of that is formed by the information I get from music reviewers and record store clerks all around me, but I certainly didn’t go into this show expecting the same things many of the other attendees did.  I just wanted to see the spectacle that is a GBV show.  And write about it a bit as an outsider.

I must say that I was thoroughly impressed.  It was easily one of the best shows I’ve seen this year (again, there’s no budging Mono.  That was epic) and it certainly makes the all-time list somewhere relatively high.  Have you ever seen a band that’s supremely confident in their ability to deliver a quality show like that?  It’s nice.  It’s different than when a band just sort of stumbles into it (like Land of Talk a few weeks back).  There’s a cockiness there and this GBV line-up had it.  That kind of cockiness helps you forget a needlessly long intro and the three superfluous encore breaks (not the encores…those were great, just the breaks).  I don’t know if it was Robert Pollard or the combination of players or the night or all of those things, but they had “it”, for lack of a better term.  They tore through songs like they’d been playing them together for years, not like they hadn’t played together as this group in years.  Robert Pollard was a force of nature, going through about 1/3 of a liter of Jose, a few bottles of beer, and several cigarettes, all the while still swinging the mic and doing leg kicks above his head, jumping and flailing and otherwise doing things that I can only hope I’ll still be able to do when I’m that old.  The songs themselves played just right; they were given the proper reverence without too much of a “do you know who we are?” feel to them, if that makes sense.  They were dirty, and not always as clean as they could have been, but the same could be said for the band itself.  All in all, it was the kind of night that makes you wonder why every show you go to isn’t like that, because it all seemed so effortless and fun, the way music should be, though it rarely appears to be that way.

Super fans certainly had their expectations met if you read every review of the show in every local media outlet.  And for all the jokes about how many people who comprise the local music store/venue scene were in attendance and my own musings on having the pick of any balding, middle-aged man I pleased, there’s a reason that kind of crowd was there.  That’s a crowd that knows and expects excellence.  Many of us hope to see it time in and time out though we know we rarely will glimpse it.  We have had our musical expectations shattered and exceeded on countless nights in countless clubs around the Twin Cities.  We are the people who love indie rock, and while this crowd certainly skewed older, there were still plenty of familiar faces to soak in the show.  For whatever reason, GBV has never been that bellwether that it is to so many of the others who I shared last night with.  I don’t know if last night necessarily changed that for me, as I didn’t rush home and start ordering all the missing pieces from the ’93-’96 era, though after last night, they are certainly on my radar.  It’s undeniable that much of the music I listen to owes something to GBV in ways that maybe I didn’t appreciate.  Tuesday night was a reminder of that.

What People Are Made Of

The St. Paul Art Crawl happened this weekend, right in the middle of where I live. In fact, my building was one of the 16 that had a variety of mixed media, anything from live music to jewelry to ersatz maps spread all over Lowertown in all the various buildings designed by Cass Gilbert et al. I had never attended before, but considering that it was all around me this weekend, I decided to poke my head around and check out some of the things that are all around me in St. Paul. It’s no Art-A-Whirl (at least on scale), but it was still pretty neat. It was cool to see a lot of the art; it was especially cool to see the Tilsner (it’s a loft community exclusively for artists). A younger version of me would have been depressed by all of it, especially considering that I haven’t exactly been doing that much on an artistic bent lately. These days, though, it’s uplifting to see. There’s a lot of places for a lot of art by a lot of people. And whatever I do, it has a place. I’m not so naive as to believe that a couple years from now I’ll suddenly be a world famous author. Sure it could happen. And sure, I need to keep working on my writing because it means a lot to me. But that’s not even what most people are in it for. Most people, myself included, follow their creative passions because they get a lot of satisfaction out of it, or they just plain need to. Here’s hoping that some day I get a little bit more out of it someday in the sense that I would like a larger audience than those I immediately know. It doesn’t have to be much more. It just has to be getting myself out there, and taking that risk again. I could say the same for music. It just something I want to be involved in, and that doesn’t have to be something where I’m crisscrossing the country in a van or anything that grand. Maybe it becomes that, but it doesn’t need to be that, and it’s certainly not what I’m setting out to do. It just needs to be something that I’m doing for myself. Much like any creative endeavor, the rest will take care of itself. I do these things because I like them, and because it’s an integral part of who I am; if something good happens, all the better. But that’s not why I’m doing it.

Speaking of integral parts of who I am, tomorrow is National Coming Out Day. Not that I was particularly aware of that (certainly, the timing didn’t figure into anything I did), but it’s worth celebrating nonetheless. I’d like to say that everything is magical and great and sunshine and lollipops forever thereafter. It’s not quite over after that. At least in the case of being trans…I still think there’s a lot more headway that needs to be made there from a simple understanding standpoint. But it does get better. If nothing else, you can actually start being who you are, and that’s a wonderful and powerful thing. Remember that when you are supporting the people you love and care about in your life. A lot of people still don’t feel like they are in a place where they can do that, and it’s sad that an ultimately empowering aspect of who a lot of people are has to be approached with such great fear. No one should feel like their life is going to fall apart because of who they are. All of us, myself included, have a lot of work to do to help change that. Even if it’s just going on and being myself so that other people can see a positive, realistic example of a trans person.  In my case, it’s a lot more.  Even when I don’t want it to be, my life is a chance to educate, and while I don’t always rise to that occasion, I try to.  I am, after all, one of the first trans people a lot of people I meet actually know.  No one necessarily asked me if I wanted to be, and frankly, it doesn’t matter.  Certainly we learn a lot about what people are made of by the choices that they make.  I made a choice to be who I am.  I am thankful for the opportunity to be able to do that, and it’s the least I can do to try and create an environment where more people feel like it’s easier to be who they are.

 
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